Nintendo engineers break down the Wii U's hardware piece by piece
October 15, 2012
Ever since it was first revealed, the Wii U has distinguished itself from its predecessor with its touchscreen controller and HD graphics. But that's really just scratching the surface. If you want to know exactly what makes Nintendo's latest console different from its forebear, why not ask the engineers that built it? Nintendo president Satoru Iwata recently did just that when he sat down with a handful of the console's designers to discuss almost all of the main hardware changes in the Wii U from the chip structure to the cooling fans and more besides.
To really delve into the inner components of the Wii U, Iwata assembled four of the main engineers from Nintendo's R&D; division who helped develop the new console: Nobuyuki Akagi, Yasuhisa Kitano, Ko Shiota, and Senior Managing Director Genyo Takeda. As the group explained, the company was prompted to create the Wii U once Japanese television broadcasts transitioned to HD, and it became clear that the markets overseas had shifted that direction as well. From that starting point, the team had to find a way to upgrade the Wii to an affordable HD console while still maintaining Nintendo's "low power, high performance" approach to hardware. Many of the designers behind the Wii U had previously helped construct the original Wii, so they were able to apply many of the lessons they learned with the original.
Much of the Wii U's design was driven by the addition of a multi-chip module, which houses the GPU and a new multi-core CPU on one chip instead of the two that were needed for the Wii and Gamecube. Aside from being the most significant change to the console's main circuitry, the new chip module reduces the amount of power needed for the machine to function while increasing its speed and reducing its latency. Nintendo worked with Renesas, IBM, AMD, and other manufacturers that produced the Wii U's components on restricting the bulk of the processing to the one chip and decrease the console's overhead as much as possible. The new chip structure also has the added bonus of shrinking the necessary size for the case, which was another goal in building the new console.
Once the design team had a more powerful machine put together, the next step was to find a way to keep it cool. Even though the Wii U only has one main heat source, it still produces three times as much heat as the original Wii, which had two. The processor maintains a good temperature thanks to a larger heat sink and fan, more fan revolutions, and strategically placed vents that maximize air flow. In the end, having only one heat source actually makes the Wii U much easier to cool and allowed it to have more processing power overall.
After these changes and an increased memory capacity, the designers added two USB connectors and a sync button to the front of the console for more convenience (as opposed to hidden behind a panel or on the back like the Wii). Then all that was left was to run extensive tests to optimize the whole configuration and weed out defects. And since Nintendo wanted the new console to be backwards compatible, the developers also had to ensure the new hardware would work just as well with software for the original Wii.
Reading the discussion between the enthusiastic design team, it's clear they set out to create a machine that wouldn't just remove the flaws of the Wii but help push Nintendo firmly into the next generation of gaming. If you'd like to hear more from the engineers on how they approached building the Wii U, the Nintendo website has a full transcript of their discussion. And be sure to check back later, as Iwata promises the next discussion will explore the Wii U's touchscreen gamepad.